Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Council Passes Layoff Plan

Fourteen employees, including two firefighters, will lose their jobs and four more will be demoted in a layoff plan the City Council approved Monday to help bridge a $3.5 million budget shortfall.

Seventeen positions will also be eliminated in the plan, which replaces reductions to part-time employment and furloughs previously proposed. The layoffs and demotions are projected to save $416,000, while the job eliminations will result in $621,609 in projected savings.

Members of the governing body noted constraints caused by this year’s 4 percent budget cap and warned that a 2 percent cap next year will give the city even less leeway for savings without concessions from all of the city’s bargaining units.

“I believe it will get worse,” Councilman Adrian Mapp said. “More employees will be affected.”

Only two unions, the Plainfield Municipal Employees Association and the Plainfield Municipal Managers Association, have voluntarily offered concessions, City Administrator Bibi Taylor said.

Mapp said he suggested to Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs that she go to the bargaining units to get concessions that will save jobs. In response, the mayor said there had been many meetings with unions, but also noted police and fire divisions each had seven positions eliminated, “so they were impacted.” She said she is calling a meeting with all union representatives at noon Wednesday in City Hall to explore “what can we give back collectively.”

Councilman Rashid Burney also asked the administration to “think outside of the box,” saying, “next year we are going to be back here again.” Councilman Cory Storch said if police don’t give back something in the way of benefits, Correction: “staffing will be decimated over the next three years.”

Bureny, Storch, Mapp and Council President Annie McWilliams voted “yes” on the layoffs, while Councilwoman Bridget Rivers voted “no.” Rivers said she could not support the plan because she felt the administration did not vet all aspects of the plan.

“Everybody must get affected,” she said.

Firefighters dominated the large crowd that attended the special meeting, waiting first for the scheduled 8 p.m. opening that did not come until 9:30 p.m. The audience no sooner sat down in Municipal Court than McWilliams announced a closed session that all but affected employees would have to vacate.

The crowd swarmed back into the hallway, only to be told the council had decided to meet upstairs inside the adjacent police headquarters. Back in the courtroom, the audience waited until 10:22 p.m. for the special meeting to resume. After the vote on the layoff plan and another vote on an IT shared services plan with the school district, the public comment portion drew emotional pleas from affected employees to save their jobs.

On behalf of the firefighters, Fire Chief Cecil Allen said the division was down to 96 firefighters from 125 to 128 and his administrative staff was down to 8 from 19 previously. A reorganization plan put three lieutenants back into fire suppression, he said, and fire engines were going out short-staffed.

“It may not look like the Fire Division is doing its part as far as working with the administration, but I think we are,” Allen said. “We don’t have much more to give.”

Others warned that cuts to health and inspections could result in the spread of disease and even a rise in fires due to illegal occupancy of unsecured, vacant buildings.

McWilliams wondered aloud how the city got to a point of such limited resources and high taxes, calling the council’s action “just an all-around difficult decision to make.” But Taylor said the situation was not specific to Plainfield, but was endemic to other municipalities in the state and around the country.

“We are facing a paradigm shift in how we do business,” she said. “There is no short answer on how we got here.”

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Wavy Window

One of the windows in my small apartment makes things look kind of strange. This building dates back to the late 19th century and I like to think this window is of that era, as its glass distorts things in a wavy way. It makes an airplane look like a caterpillar creeping across the sky. The view of garages above is not thrilling, but it really points up the distortion.

Here's a shingled roof, with the neighbor's pool and some trees in the background. So much more interesting than the view through plate glass!


Tale of A Banned Word

Back when I was a reporter and the news organization was not so flat, editors wielded great power. One year, a colorful and opinionated editor decided to start a list of words that were to be banned from copy. The idea was to bar jargon and imprecise words and phrases. Forget about cop-speak such as "the perpetrator fled on foot." Don't say "area man wins Nobel Prize," just name his hometown. And then there was the word beloved of municipal engineers and planners: "infrastructure."

Basically, the word stands for everything of service to a city or town, including roads, bridges, sewers, traffic systems, lighting and assorted cables, wires and pipes of every kind. Here is a good graphic image from the New York Times that sums it up.

In recent times, the word has come up quite often in the big debate over where people should live. Suburban sprawl (is that a banned term?) has caused some planners to advocate development in the cities where the, uh, infrastructure is already in place.

The term also comes up when somebody has to figure out how to pay for repairs. "Infra-" means "beneath" in Latin, and much of the stuff is under the ground or maybe, in the case of bridges, beneath our notice until they start falling into rivers. Then we see public fretting about the upkeep of these vital systems.

Anyway, the recent use of the word in an actual headline last week as well as in the lede (newsroom speak for lead paragraph) gave me a start. The editor who once banned it from copy is long gone from New Jersey and a lot of copy editing is now done in a galaxy far, far away from the local newsroom. The rules and the times have changed and no offense is intended to current reporters and editors. Still, it was disconcerting to me to see the word.

Even as a blogger, I try to keep in mind the tenets this editor upheld. Five years after retiring, I wrote this recommendation on LinkedIn: “Karen's news sense was remarkable, both for gleaning story ideas from multiple sources and for working with reporters to tell stories in the most concise and engaging way.”

Kren, as she preferred to be called, will always be my lodestar for clear writing.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Something To Consider in Union Talks

In most companies, new employees don't get anywhere near the perks that a previous generation enjoyed. Vacation days cannot be banked, your birthday is not a day off and even if you never took a sick day, you will not be rewarded when you retire.

Municipal government, especially in cities, seems to be the last bastion of "terminal leave," in which a person leaves the job but gets paid until all those earned days are expended. A current example is the retirement of Fire Chief Cecil Allen, who will have five months of terminal leave after he turns over the reins to an acting chief, who will then also receive chief's pay for being in charge.

In the spirit of post-Thanksgiving time, when leftovers abound, I am giving you a leftover article from 2008 that talks about money owed to employees for accrued days off. Click here to see it. As union negotiations go on, this may be of interest in thinking about limiting future liability.


Two Items for Monday's Special Meeting

The City Council's notice for Monday's meeting has been published. There will be an executive session at 7 p.m. and a special meeting at 8 p.m., both in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

The council was supposed to meet on Nov. 22 in closed session to discuss layoffs. That will now be happening Monday.

Several items were mentioned on Nov. 22 as possible topics for the special meeting, but only two topics - layoffs and a shared services agreement with the school district - are in the legal notice. This means by law only those items can be discussed.

Readers may recall that there was a brief shared services agreement in 2008 with the school district for information technology when Chris Payne was working for the district. He now works for the city, but has a massive scope of work and no permanent staff. One hopes the public will be given some idea of how this shared services plan will work and what the benefits will be for each partner.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Brown Departs Cabinet

David G. Brown II has left City Hall after serving less than nine months as director of Public Works & Urban Development.

Brown was approved Jan. 1 as head of the department, but was not expected to come on board until April 1. Jennifer Wenson Maier, who served in the post during the first four-year term of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, was rejected for the mayor's second term, but then agreed to stay on until April 1. However, she took an administrative job in Hoboken in early February and Brown was on the job as of March 1.
Public Works & Urban Development had been concerned mainly with planning, housing, engineering, streets and economic development until the mid-1990s, when the Recreation and Inspections divisions were moved to the department from Public Affairs & Safety.
As director, Brown found himself embroiled in a bitter squabble between Recreation and a volunteer baseball league over the use of city ballfields. A Recreation Committee was formed in part to defuse the conflict (see a Plaintalker post here), but the situation hardened to the point where officials suggested establishment of a volunteer Recreation Commission to take charge and direct activities.
Citizens had been and continued to be riled up over delays in road repairs - a five-year plan devised in 2005 was still in early stages in 2009.

From a December 2009 Plaintalker post: "Out of $22.3 million for road maintenance over six years, just $1 million is slated for 2010. This program is already way behind. A five-year plan from 2005 was stalled to the point where years were lost and the cosmetic term "Phase II" was used to identify what might have been a much earlier year if the schedule had been followed."

Inspections, which the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams named as drawing the most complaints during his two terms in office, continued to be problematic throughout 2010. The demolition of an historic North Avenue building (click here) soon after Brown took office raised new questions about the efficacy of the Inspections Division.

As for economic development, a roster of nearly 20 varied proposals during the mayor's first term has devolved to seven projects by one developer. His original target has shifted from the blocks facing the main train station to others north and west, and his focus is largely on residential and hospitality uses. There has been no recent update on other tracts previously designated for redevelopment. The city is on the verge of a push for transit-oriented development that will need coordination and oversight from Public Works & Urban Development.

In parting, Brown cited his wish to pursue other goals and spend more time with his family, according to a report in the Courier News.

It will now be up to the mayor and governing body to fill the vacancy. A successor can be named in acting capacity for 90 days, or permanently to serve a term concurrent with the mayor's, ending Dec. 31, 2013.

The next person will inherit the situations noted above, among others. For the city's sake, let's hope someone out there is up to the challenge and will sign on for the long haul. To the right leader, these difficulties could be seen as opportunities.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Give Thanks

"Give thanks" is something Habte Selassie says all year round.

I try to listen to his radio program, "Labbrish," every week on WBAI. It used to come on at 3 a.m. Saturday and now has been changed to 2 a.m. Besides Habte Selassie's generous and positive outlook on life and humanity, the program features reggae music and a weekly educational segment on natural, herbal medicine. No matter how hectic or troubled life gets, listening to reggae music seems to have an uplifting and calming effect for me.

Even if you never find yourself up at that hour to hear the radio, I recommend Habte Selassie's philosophy, not just for one big day but ongoing: Give thanks.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

State Announces Transitional Aid Awards

City Council budget session on Channel 96.

State aid for fiscally stressed municipalities was announced today. Some may recall that Plainfield sought such aid for SFY 2010 and only got $250,000, with stringent conditions attached.

That aid award was not announced until March 18, for the fiscal year ending June 30. The lateness of past announcements was part of the reason why some council members felt it was not worth holding up the budget process, especially for what turned out to be a minimal amount of help.

Plainfield was not on the list of applicants for the SFY 2011 budget year. Look here for the complete list of applicants and their awards (some got nothing). It is interesting that the total amount of aid for fiscal year municipalities was nearly $140 million, compared to less than $14 million for SFY 2010. Camden alone got $69 million.

While this is a much bigger carrot than last year, the stick is also bigger. Look here for the rationale for a Memorandum of Understanding. Recipients will get 75 percent of the funding initially, but will forfeit the remaining 25 percent if terms of the agreement are not followed.

This fiscal tough love from the state is setting an example for all municipalities. Part of the program is for municipalities to pass a local pay-to-play ordinance and also to describe how they are going to eliminate their reliance on such aid.

New Jersey's state motto is "Liberty and Prosperity," but in these hard times Gov. Chris Christie seems to be taking a cue from the old folk saying, "Every tub must sit on its own bottom."


New Blogger in Town

Resident Owen Fletcher has joined the ranks of city bloggers.

He writes:

I am pleased to announce that I am joining the ranks of Plainfield's bloggers. I'm excited to add something new to the collective conversation that you participate in every day. Below is a link to the website.


Welcome to Owen, who plans to post twice a week.


Veterans, Seniors Voice Turf Issues

Speaking for "scores of veterans" Monday, Commander Lamar Mackson of American Legion Post 219 said they want "unfettered access" to a meeting place at 400 East Front Street. The dilemma is that a Veterans' Center promised as part of the building will not become available until all 63 condos on three upper floors are sold.

City Administrator Bibi Taylor said the space is being used as a sales office for the residential units. Taylor said veterans are allowed to use a conference room in the senior center that is also on the ground floor of the building, but Mackson said when veterans convene for a meeting, they sometimes have to wait to be let in. They want their own key, he said.

Officials demurred, citing security concerns over such access to a city-owned property.

Council members expressed sympathy for the situation, which Mackson called "insulting and offensive to veterans."

Councilman Cory Storch noted the promise of a Veterans' Center was something Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs ran on in her last campaign.

"Don't remind me," said Councilman Adrian Mapp, who lost the 2009 Democratic primary to Robinson-Briggs.

A Veterans' Day celebration in November 2009 was billed as being at the center, but took place outdoors and in the senior center.

With only a fraction of the residential units sold so far (Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson put the number at perhaps 16 to 20 out of 63), the veterans may have a long wait for their own place. The contract obviously trumps the promise.

Also on Monday, Senior Center board member George Smith said there is a parking problem at the building. The Monarch, as the complex is known, has a deck over a portion of the parking lot and seniors are not being allowed to park there. Recently a warning was posted that cars will be towed, he said. Smith raised the issue of seniors having to park in the open and walk in snow.

Williamson said he had been made aware of the issue and had a discussion with the developer that day. He requested the developer to return to the Planning Board to resolve parking issues.

At the risk of ticking off my fellow seniors, may I say they parked in the open over a 10-year lease period beginning in 1989 for space at 305 East Front Street, then spent another 10 years using the same lot while officials tossed around options for a new center. When the application was at the Planning Board, seniors did not want to hear a lot of dickering over parking at the site and each two-bedroom condo was allotted one and a half parking spaces. That included one dedicated space per unit and a rather optimistic notion that residents, visitors and seniors would somehow share the balance.

So now the preferred, covered spaces are posing a problem.

In retrospect, both of these issues were embedded in the original plan. The formula for acquisition of the Veterans' Center now seems too open-ended. The vague, cross-your-fingers hope for parking to just magically work itself out is running afoul of reality. Seniors dealt with an open lot when there was no option, but now they want dibs on the new, more desirable choice.

Add to this the unfinished business the city itself has with the developer, the $278,000 bill for condo fees and fit-out of the senior center that was promised "at no cost to the city," and you have the whole can of worms.

Oh wait, I forgot about the "rooftop garden" that seniors and residents are supposed to share. Last time I looked in the summer, there was a rooftop but no garden. Ooops.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Adieu, Madame Clerk

City Council President Annie McWilliams called it the end of an era.

Councilman Adrian Mapp said, “She’s an institution.”

Councilwoman Linda Carter praised her for “a mastery of words that no one will ever be able to come close to.”

The occasion was City Clerk Laddie Wyatt’s last council meeting after 23 years on the job. Before that, she had been with the Board of Education for 16 years, giving Plainfield nearly 40 years of service.

Within those years, she served at the side of two of the city’s most charismatic leaders, Everett C. Lattimore and Richard L. “Rick” Taylor. Lattimore was the city’s first black mayor and the first Democrat to hold the post in 68 years. Besides that, he had been a councilman for 10 years, a freeholder for three terms and an educator who rose to the rank of schools superintendent. Taylor, a decorated Vietnam veteran and city councilman, became mayor when Lattimore was forced to decide between that part-time post and his fulltime educational calling. As mayor and also executive director of Grant Avenue Community Center, Taylor had a penchant for bringing big-name black politicians and entertainers to Plainfield, stirring up pride as well as excitement.

Wyatt and her husband Leonard, now deceased, moved to Plainfield in 1964 and gradually became acquainted with both men. She recalls that her husband ran against Lattimore for freeholder. She met Lattimore when he was principal at Hubbard Middle School and remembers him prodding her ambition, asking “What do you want to do?” She said she wanted a job “making a lot of money,” which at the time she set as $10,000.

She saw him rise through the ranks to assistant superintendent while she became the union chairperson for grievances, she said. Her gift for writing up the grievances won congratulations from then-superintendent Dr. Ron Lewis and attracted enough interest from Lattimore that he was soon asking her to “come work for me.”

Meanwhile, she recalls, Rick Taylor was calling from City Hall, but she chose to stay with Lattimore and became his executive secretary, finding the sphere of education more appealing than municipal government.

Taylor, however, did not relent and in 1987 she was appointed acting city clerk as longtime City Clerk Emilia Stahura was retiring.

“I came in as an innocent,” she said, claiming never to have followed politics. But even after she became aware of the political arena and the fierce competition among rivals for leadership, she strove to be diplomatic and above the fray - despite her increasing insight into party politics.

“As clerk, you hear everything,” she said. “You know where all the skeletons are.”

For whatever reason, Wyatt was only a couple years into the job when she found herself targeted for dismissal. By then, she was immersed in what she calls “clerkdom,” a society priding itself on knowing the law and upholding the rectitude of municipal government through constant learning and accreditation.

None other than Michael Pane, the attorney who headed the Municipal Clerks’ Association of New Jersey, took up her case and she prevailed in what was heralded in the group’s journal, “The Quill,” as a landmark decision for clerks. Wyatt kept her job and received $19,000 from the city for her defense. She went on to receive tenure in the post, which she says she celebrated by buying herself a fur jacket embroidered with the words, “Tenure is the best revenge.”

Since then, she has earned the right to add three honorifics to her name, denoting Registered Municipal Clerk, Certified Municipal Clerk and Master Municipal Clerk Academy attainment. She is addressed as Madame Clerk at council meetings.

The heady days of breakthroughs for black politicians have subsided somewhat. Headline-grabber Rick Taylor was followed in office by four other black mayors of varying personal styles. The governing body has been mostly black Democrats for decades, though not without factions.

“There has always been a fight between the mayor and council throughout my tenure,” she said.

But Wyatt said she has done her best to be neutral and fair to all.

North Plainfield Clerk Richard Phoenix was a witness to much of Wyatt’s career, first at the Board of Education and then at Plainfield City Hall.

In the school district, he said, “Everybody loved her.”

She was known to students and staff alike over the years, Phoenix said. After funding for his job as public information officer dried up and Wyatt needed someone to help with minutes, Phoenix stepped in as transcriber. Later he served as her assistant at meetings, called on not only to keep the sound system in order but also to read proclamations in his mellifluous “radio voice.”

“She was very big on ceremony and dignity and respect,” he said.

While still keeping up his career in radio, Phoenix learned enough about being a clerk to become the deputy to North Plainfield Clerk Gloria Pflueger and to succeed her upon her retirement. He credits Wyatt, saying, “She has always been a very strong mentor to me.”

In recent budget talks, Wyatt offered a page-long list of the clerk’s duties, including not only being the keeper of records and secretary to the governing body but overseeing elections and dealing with three dozen liquor licenses each year. These days, she gets 23 memos a day from the state on various matters and must constantly keep abreast of changes in election law, she says.

Those who know her well have heard her speak of retirement for many years, but until now it has been only a notion. Now she will officially be out of office at the end of the year. As Mapp said when Wyatt shed some tears Monday, “I know she’s emotional – she really doesn‘t want to go.”

Echoing her own devotion to the post, Wyatt said her advice to whoever succeeds her is, “If you are not going to be dedicated and married to the job, you’re not going to be successful in your job.”

McWilliams said she will always be remembered as an “advisor and friend to many,” adding, “Mrs. Wyatt, we can never thank you enough.”

(And best wishes to Madame Clerk from Ms. B!)

--Bernice Paglia

Layoffs, More To Be Discussed Nov. 29

An advertised meeting on pending layoffs did not take place Monday night, but the topic will be part of a special meeting next Monday. Further details, such as the meeting location, are to be announced.

As the evening wore on, more items got tacked on to the special agenda. A shared services agreement with the school district for information technology will be on the agenda. The council's Finance Committee will give its budget recommendations. I believe I heard Council President Annie McWilliams say she will reveal her Youth Master Plan as well. More details as available.


Two Key Posts Filled

At long last, Plainfield has a new chief finance officer - and yet another director of Administration, Finance, Health & Senior Services.

The City Council approved hiring Ron Zilinski, a highly regarded certified CFO with decades of experience, to fill the post that has been empty since the retirement of Peter Sepelya at the end of 2007. Both the mayor and council faced daily $25 personal fines from the state Division of Local Government Services if no one was hired by the end of this month.

Zilinski, recently retired from service in Trenton, will receive $15,000 annually as CFO and another $65,000 as city treasurer. The latter title and salary will kick in Jan. 1, as the council also passed a salary ordinance for that post last night. Zilinski will work 28 hours a week .

Al Restaino, who served the city as director of Community Development, is the new director of AFH&SS, the largest of three departments mandated by the City Charter. The department received one more division last night as the council passed an ordinance creating the Division of Information Technology and Media within AFH&SS. Technology Manager Chris Payne had been reporting directly to the mayor since being hired earlier this year, a technical violation of the charter.

Restaino as department head will receive $110,000. One of his main initiatives, as suggested by the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, may be to find a way to reduce the number of social service functions under the city's wing. As reported by Mark Spivey, a two-year transition of a substance abuse program from city aegis to non-profit status has just been completed.

Restaino is also heading the city's anti-poverty agency, Plainfield Action Services, one of the divisions under his control as department head.

Monday's City Council meeting was crammed with many other items, some of which Plaintalker will report later.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, November 22, 2010

Garden Cleanup Delayed

Spiderwort, still in bloom on Nov. 20
Riding to Westfield on the 59 bus last week, I saw many rosebushes still flowering and many other plants untouched by frost.
We are waiting for a hard frost because we have a box of 40 tulip bulbs to be planted and the grower says it should be done after the killing frost.
Then there is the annual cleanup of dead foliage to be dealt with. It seems this chore is getting pushed back each year. Now it looks like it might be a post-Thanksgiving task.
Here is a link to frost data from 1988, which puts the last frost in Newark and vicinity at October 26. Being in Central Jersey, Plainfield is affected by urban conditions that cause a "heat island," according to the state climatologist, and our frost dates are later than those of the northern part of the state. But have things changed so much since 1988?
How is it going with your garden cleanup this year?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Surprise Executive Session Monday

A 7 p.m. executive session will precede Monday's 8 p.m. City Council meeting in Municipal Court.

I'm told this has to do with a problem regarding the proposed layoff plan that calls for reduction to part-time employment for certain individuals. Apparently this did not pass muster with the Civil Service Commission. Those affected may be attending the closed session.

Those of us who want to attend the regular meeting may find ourselves in the hallway as we did at another meeting in October for two hours.

The little birdie with gossip in beak also says two prior layoff plans may have been flawed.
(Little birdies are what us old folks used to rely on before Twitter.) The facts remain to be revealed.

The executive session is for real, as per a legal notice in Saturday's Courier News.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

IT To Be Added to AFH&SS

Random image: Ginkgo leaves.

The City Council will be voting Monday on an ordinance to create a "Division of Information Technology" within the Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services.

While this will properly place these functions under one of the three departments mandated in the City Charter, it is a shame in a way that it will bring another division to the already overloaded department that may also acquire a permanent director Monday.

Plaintalker has already harped on the faultiness of the decision in the 1990s to graft Health & Social Services onto Administration & Finance to justify putting someone with a social services background in as department head. The current question has become why the city is even providing social services when, as Councilman Cory Storch often suggests, non-profits could do a much better job in many cases.

The Welfare Division was spun off many years ago to county control and Project Alert/Dudley House was shifted to an outside agency last year. The Bilingual Day Care Center and Plainfield Action Services have been mentioned in budget talks as other agencies that might be better off under outside control.

As other bloggers have pointed out, IT was established as a concept before a thorough review of city needs and formulation of a plan. It was lumped in with media functions and claimed by the mayor as an entity reporting directly to her. The proposed ordinance is meant to clarify IT's status in the organization and the ordinance also sets forth duties of the IT manager, which are very broad.

The mayor has already named Al Restaino as acting department head and he will be up for council confirmation Monday.

Restaino came to the city in January 2005 as confidential aide to the director of the Department of Public Works & Urban Development. His most recent title was director of Community Development within PW&UD. He is also serving as director of Plainfield Action Services within AFH&SS. One of his main responsibilities as Community Development director was overseeing the Community Development Block Grant process, which includes convening a group to review and rank applications for the federal funding program. The city sends recommendations to the county for the final cut and eventually funding flows back to awardees.

It is unclear whether Restaino will continue to handle these responsibilities in addition to the new ones.

The proposed ordinance lists nine IT tasks for which the manager will be responsible, including all aspects of information processing, all city technology operations, management of a citywide IT network, municipal programming (web site?), the local television channel and "media requirements." Part of the recent budget discussion was how much help he will need to do all this. There is also a somewhat nebulous "shared services" plan in the works which will also have to be monitored both by IT manager Chris Payne and Restaino as department head.

It is both commendable and necessary that the IT function be set forth and that IT be placed properly on the table of organization. It remains to be seen whether the mayor will take it as an affront to her self-proclaimed power over the IT program. If confirmed, Restaino will serve a term concurrent with the mayor. Given a possible perceived power struggle over IT, Restaino may have to walk a fine line between the executive and legislative branches.

There are many aspects of this whole situation that need more study. On the face of it, both Payne and Restaino may be spread thin over too many responsibilities. Further changes may be necessary to streamline and strengthen the organization, otherwise the net effect is just to rearrange the deck chairs on the Good Ship Plainfield.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Civil Service Rules: Due for Reform?

Random image: Japanese and Norway maple leaves.

In February, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs predicted, "The bumping rights will put us in a state of chaos."
The administration had identified 15 people to be laid off, but due to Civil Service laws those affected "bumped" others out of their jobs. The mayor wanted another two weeks of talks with the unions to ward off the layoffs, but the governing body wanted to get the budget passed as the city was already in the third quarter of the 2010 fiscal year. Click here to see Plaintalker's full post.
The council is now hoping to pass the budget in December for the fiscal year that began July 1.
As it stands, several employees will face cuts to part-time hours and all staff in the Department of Public Works & Urban Development will have to take furlough days to pass the budget with a 4 percent increase.
But the mayor's fears for the SFY 2010 budget process were corroborated by City Clerk Laddie Wyatt in budget deliberations earlier this month. Wyatt told the council her office is "effectively crippled" by the loss of two experienced staffers who were bumped to other positions in City Hall.
Wyatt said if the situation goes on for another two or three months, her office "will never recover."
The U.S. Department of Labor defines bumping rights this way:

"In a seniority system, the rights of workers with greater seniority whose jobs are abolished to replace (bump) workers with less seniority so that the worker who ultimately loses his/her job is not the worker whose job was abolished."

As times have become harder, the need for budget cuts is clashing with such job protection rules. But the alternative - union givebacks to save jobs - is proving to be a hard sell in Plainfield.

Cynthia Smith, president of the Plainfield Municipal Employees Association, told the council during budget talks that her union has been hit hardest by layoffs. Tax Assessor Tracy Bennett, representing the Plainfield Municipal Managers Association, said her union is working closely with the PMEA to come up with concessions. But other city unions have not expressed the same willingness.

Meanwhile, state legislators have proposed allowing counties and municipalities to withdraw from the Civil Service system that supports bumping rights. Click here to see the proposed legislation. If passed, it would not affect those protected under the old rules.

Something has got to give in the next budget year, when the city will be constrained by a 2 percent limit on increasing taxes. Most of the unions, including police and fire, need new contracts. While awaiting some kind of general job rule reform, it will be a test of officials' skills on both sides of the contract table to see whether common ground can be found to save jobs and share the pain with cash-strapped taxpayers.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Stopping Gun Violence

As two families and the community at large mourn the loss of two young men to gun violence, some have raised the question of how to prevent illegal guns from coming into the city.

The U.S. Department of Justice has published information on the scope of the problem and also some strategies that have been applied to reduce gun trafficking. Click here to see more.

Operation Ceasefire, a program initiated in Boston, is mentioned as having some success in reducing the number of illegal guns on the street. Plainfield had its own version for a while until it was stopped by budget cuts affecting the Union County Prosecutor's Office.

Perhaps the most prominent advocate of gun control is the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Its web site tells of efforts spanning four decades, what has been accomplished and what remains to be done. Click here to learn more.

A few years ago, it was a common thing to hear gunshots in the early morning coming from the vicinity of Park and Fifth. Sometimes the volleys were followed by sirens of police cars, then an ambulance. The sound of a helicopter coming in at 2:30 or 3 a.m. was most ominous, as it signaled an effort to take somebody to a trauma center for life-threatening injuries.

Our neighborhood around Park & Seventh also saw some fatal daylight shootings. These are even more scary than the ones that happen when most folks are home in bed. Both the recent fatalities took place in broad daylight.

It can never be known whether the $1 million proposed gunshot detection system would have made any difference in the two deaths now being mourned. Some say street intelligence is the key to knowing who has illegal guns and is likely to use them. Surveillance cameras may be another deterrent.

Meanwhile, it is a very sad time for the city. Our condolences to all who are grieving.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What Does It All Mean?

Downtown surveillance cameras. The Armory. The $1 senior center that costs a lot more.

These are some things mentioned at Monday’s City Council meeting that we have heard about before, months ago or even years ago.

The downtown surveillance cameras have been under discussion for more than five years. Issues include where to put them, who will watch them and the little matter of how much they will cost to buy and maintain. Apparently they will not go in the Tepper’s basement, which has been in city hands for five years now. Monitoring the cameras is one of the uses that was floated and discarded, as was a senior center, City Council offices and a youth center.

The Armory on East Seventh Street was also targeted for use as a senior center, but the seniors said no, a thousand times no. Still, its purchase was talked up by the mayor and Assemblyman Jerry Green at various junctures, although the state price tag of $1.5 to $2 million stalled a deal. Now something is again in the works and may be revealed at the Nov. 22 meeting.

The seniors got their wish for a brand new center as part of development of a building with 63 residential condos. Somehow the $1 price tag has morphed into more than a quarter million dollars in payments for fitting out the center and for monthly fees, as the center is in fact a city-owned condo. There may be something up for a vote Monday on that issue as well.

Being in a contemplative mood lately, I wonder when we will ever see surveillance cameras (or should I say, when they will see us). I wonder why the notion of buying the Armory keeps coming up, when the city is under possibly the tightest fiscal constraints in decades.

The governing body itself has been wondering how the costs for the senior center were authorized.

So what does it mean that these and many other issues linger on so long? Part of it may be that the council feels blindsided when given what they feel is insufficient information to make a decision. The once-a-month meeting format does not lend itself to in-depth discussion of all items, so things may get tabled. Some items just seem to reveal a disconnect between the governing body’s general outlook (money is tight) and the wishes of the administration (let’s buy a building).

It’s hard to decode some of the mixed messages we get from those in elected office. It would be a lot easier if the two branches could agree on priorities and just make the most important things happen.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Garden Club Plants Centennial Tree

Photo credit: Susan Fraser

The Plainfield Garden Club chose the "Winter King" Hawthorne to plant in honor of the Garden Club of America's Centennial in 2013. The tree replaces a sickly one that used to grow in the Shakespeare Garden in Cedar Brook Park. The photo shows members of the club along with Union County Parks employees who did the heavy work associated with the planting.

Click here to learn more about the "Winter King" Hawthorne and here to learn more about the Plainfield Garden Club.

Now for a personal note: Not only is the hawthorn (alternate spelling) tree mentioned in the works of Shakespeare, it has a mystical place in plant lore of the Celts, who developed a lunar tree alphabet. Every year I get a calendar from Luna Press (this year, thanks to Peter) that indicates the tree for each lunar month and its qualities. The lunar month Uath spans May and June and the tree is described thus: "The Hawthorn is sacred to the Fire Queen of Love. Her bird is the night-crow; her color, the darkest black; her healing balances blood, nerves, and spirit."

So for some of us, it is not only the natural beauty of the tree, its ancient significance is also of interest.

Thanks to the Plainfield Garden Club and the Union County Parks workers who do so much to keep up the Shakespeare Garden for all of us to enjoy!


No Signs Necessary

This new store has no signage except for some Mexican flags on the facade. The ever-changing central business district now has several stores catering to a Mexican clientele.

Saints and comic figures are on sale for home decor.
The Virgen de Guadalupe has become a pervasive icon throughout the city, on banners, baby blankets, clothing, jewelry and in paintings and statuary.

Snacks have a Mexican flair. I think this one combines crunchy corn sticks with lime flavor.
Pedestrians such as myself and Jackie get the close-up view of the changing downtown mix. I hope our city officials are able to walk around sometimes and see how things are going. Still no Trader Joe's for the baguette and brie crowd, but the 59 bus will whisk you away to Westfield when you simply must have such fare.

Gun Violence Weighs on City

Monday’s City Council meeting began with Council President Annie McWilliams calling on Police Director Martin Hellwig to talk about recent homicides that have followed a six-month wave of shootings.

Hellwig said all four homicides occurred in the West End. Arrests were made in the fatal shooting of a taxi driver and the beating death of a bar security guard, but the Union County Homicide Task Force and local police are still investigating the shooting of a 17-year-old student Thursday and a 23-year-old man Friday.

Hellwig said police were following a number of leads to solve the two latest homicides, but had made no arrests as yet. He said the city is doing a number of things to abate violent crime, but noted New York City has experienced a double-digit increase in homicides and that violent crime is up in New Jersey.

After Hellwig said he was not sure what more could be done with the present manpower, Councilwoman Bridget Rivers asked about calling in the National Guard or other outside help. Hellwig called the notion of reaching out for the National Guard “extreme” and said of the victims, “A lot of these are targeted individuals.”

Rivers said her biggest fear was that a baby or a senior would be caught in gunfire. She said from her home, she can hear gunshots every night “like firecrackers.”

“What do you need from us?” Rivers asked.

Hellwig said he needs “support in moving forward with technology” including downtown surveillance cameras.

“I just want to assure the community that steps are being taken,” Rivers said.

Hellwig cited the value of police intelligence, saying two men armed with automatic weapons had been stopped before they could commit a homicide.

McWilliams asked any family members of victims to step forward and called gun violence a national problem.

Former Fourth Ward Councilwoman Joanne Hollis came to the microphone to deplore a lack of activities for young people, a sentiment echoed by several other speakers who called on the community at large to take up youth mentoring and counseling roles. At a budget hearing that followed the comments on crime, speakers voiced support for Recreation Superintendent Dave Wynn and his programs, saying they must not be cut. McWilliams said there was a “misperception” that came up every year that the city was going to “decimate recreation,” which she said was not true.

(Plaintalker will report on other council matters in upcoming posts.)

--Bernice Paglia

New CFO on Tap

A retired chief finance officer who last served in Trenton appears to be in line for the same post here.

The City Council interviewed Ron Zilinski by telephone in closed session Monday night, according to an agenda. City Administrator Bibi Taylor said Monday Zilinski's name will be offered for council confirmation at the Nov. 22 council meeting.

If hired, Zilinski's advent will ward off a state Division of Local Government Services threat to fine both the mayor and each council member $25 per day if they fail to put a CFO in place by the end of the month. The city has been without a CFO since the end of 2007. The council had asked the DLGS to name a temporary CFO last summer, but the agency recently denied the request and set the deadline for city action to resolve the issue.

The council is also being asked to pass a salary and wage ordinance creating the title of city treasurer. If passed on two readings, it will take effect in January. Zilinski will then assume the title, Taylor said. Because he is retired, his compensation is limited under state pension rules. Taylor said the job descriptions for a CFO and treasurer are basically the same.

--Bernice Paglia

Eid al-Adha Greetings

to all our
Muslim Friends and Neighbors

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Some Council Highlights

Random image: Winter windowsill.

At first glance, Monday’s City Council meeting has a few unusual items. Time will tell how newsworthy they prove to be.

In skimming the agenda at the Plainfield Public Library Saturday, I missed something I noticed later when reviewing the agenda posted on the city web site. Besides reports from the four City Council committees established in January, there is listed a report from the Community Advisory Group. This is the entity charged with oversight of conditions on the 2008 closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center. The first public meeting of the CAG did not take place until April 2010. I must admit I have left reporting on the tortuous aftermath of the closing to others, but this report should certainly be of interest.

Among eight new ordinances, one is to establish the salary range for “city treasurer” at $83,172 to $114,801. This is a new one on me. In another ordinance, that title will become number 20 on a list of those eligible for the Defined Contribution Retirement program, which would seem to indicate it is a new title. The title of city treasurer is listed on the state Civil Service Commission’s web site, but the link to a job description does not work. It seems odd to create a new title at this economic juncture. Perhaps there will be an explanation Monday.

As mentioned in budget deliberations, several fees for applicants to land use boards and commissions will increase with passage of another proposed ordinance, MC 2010-35. Another one, MC 2010-34, has to do with changes to escrow fees. Maybe these ordinances will help the bottom line in the Planning Division, which handles the applications and escrow accounts.

Zoning changes – four pages worth – are contemplated in another new ordinance, MC 2010-37. Plowing through the details, I discovered that my own block would be affected by a change from R-5, Medium Density Residential, to R-6, Medium/High Density Residential. The East Seventh Street side of the block already has several apartment buildings that exceed the density allowed in an R-5 zone, which covers single- and two-family homes. The R-6 designation would also include apartment buildings and townhouses at higher densities. While the change would bring the apartment buildings into compliance, the Yates House, home of one of the city’s first councilmen and now a six-family, could conceivably be knocked down for construction of a townhouse complex or yet another apartment building.

The text of all the proposed ordinances will be in the binder that is set out for public scrutiny at agenda-setting sessions and copies may also be obtained from the City Clerk’s office. Neighborhood associations would be well-advised to check the proposed zoning changes.

As Dr. Yood has already reported, the acting director of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services, Al Restaino, is being nominated to be the permanent director. If confirmed on Nov. 22, he would serve through the balance of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs’ term, to Dec. 31, 2013.

Don’t be confused if you are viewing the agenda on the city web site and notice a date of Nov. 22 – the first page has the correct date, Nov. 15. The subsequent pages have the date of the regular meeting, a week from tomorrow.

Al of us elder council watchers will be saying our prayers or offering incantations in hopes that the meeting will not be too long, especially for those of us who stay up afterwards to blog.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Copper Scavengers Hit Trash

One of my neighbors discarded an old radio and a fan a couple of days ago. Soon the items were smashed to bits by someone who wanted copper scraps.

I have seen this happen before with television sets and computers left out on the curb. The first thing to go is the power cord.

Large-scale copper theft of wiring from power stations and plumbing from homes under construction has become a big problem nationwide. Our backyard scavengers just left a big mess behind, but people have set fires in landfills while burning coverings off copper wires.

On the large scale, copper theft has become important enough for the federal Department of Energy to publish a 25-page piece on its effect on utilities.
Union County will be taking part in a statewide electronics recycling collection program in 2011, according to this news article.
Anything is apparently tempting to copper scavengers, even household castoffs. Maybe it is a sign of our still somewhat desperate economic times.

Clerk: Staff Loss Caused Disarray

City Clerk Laddie Wyatt did not mince words when her turn came up at City Council budget hearings.

Having lost two seasoned staffers to layoffs in the last budget year, Wyatt said, “My office is effectively crippled.”

Wyatt had compiled a list four pages long of duties performed by her office, which serves as secretary to the governing body and also handles city licenses and permits, including those for taxis and liquor establishments. The clerk will play an integral role in the upcoming reapportionment of wards following the 2010 census. In addition, the clerk oversees most aspects of the election process.

Wyatt said if the situation continues for two or three months more, her office will never recover.

One problem is a backlog of paperwork to be filed.

“My vault is a disaster,” she said.

Through Civil Service “bumping rights,” one staffer was sent to Inspections and one to the Health Division last spring, while the office received an employee unfamiliar with the workings of the office.

It recently came to light through a citizen’s inquiry that the office has fallen behind on producing minutes of council meetings.

Among suggestions to improve the situation, Wyatt said the governing body, which acts as the Alcoholic Beverage Control board for the city’s 36 liquor license holders, could spin off the responsibility to a separate board. Councilman Rashid Burney said office fees must cover costs and funding must be allocated so the minutes can be done.

Councilwoman Linda Carter said the office may need to become more “computer-efficient” and Councilwoman Bridget Rivers said perhaps a consultant could be brought in to “get things back on track.”

Council President Annie McWilliams suggested improving staff skills or going outside for help, though the latter would cost time and money.

Asked whether the experienced employees could be brought back to the office, City Administrator Bibi Taylor said outside of involuntary transfers, the “ultimate end of achieving wholeness in the clerk’s office” might be to train the current staff and “bring them up to speed.”

Wyatt herself is on the verge of retirement after about a quarter-century of service. Council members were effusive in their praise of her service and called her irreplaceable. Her departure will mean a further transition for the office in 2011.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, November 12, 2010

A City's Loss

Another young person has been lost to gun violence.

Once again the Union County Homicide Task Force has been called on to piece together the elements that led to this brazen, fatal assault.

Condolences to the family and also to all those who have recently banded together to look for ways to prevent such losses. There is still much work to be done.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Try Amaryllis to Fight Winter Doldrums

The weather this week is sunny and pleasant, but gray days are coming. My favorite cure for winter gloom is an amaryllis or two around the house.
In my opinion, one of the best sources for amaryllis bulbs is White Flower Farm. Click here for a link. But this plant has become so popular that you can pick up bulbs at supermarkets, chain pharmacies and home improvement stores. It's worth a try to start bulbs soon and enjoy their unfolding beauty over several weeks. Some of my most memorable picks have been Aphrodite, Picotee and Apple Blossom, but each year White Flower Farm offers interesting new varieties.

Budget Talks End, Hearing Monday

The City Council wrapped up budget deliberations Wednesday with presentations from Planning Director Bill Nierstedt and Jacques Howard of the Office of Economic Development. On Monday, the governing body will hold a public hearing on the introduced budget and Council President Annie McWilliams voiced hopes for approval of amendments and budget passage in December.

The council and its Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee plan to use this year’s format of written responses to 10 questions as a template for future budget deliberations, but will expect to see the answers earlier than the night of the presentations. The city is facing a 2 percent cap on tax increases next year and council members advocated early monitoring and planning to get ready for the constraints.

Councilman William Reid noted that representatives of only two of the city’s half-dozen unions attended the budget sessions. If others had attended, he said, they might get a “real understanding of what we are up against.” City employees were affected by two rounds of layoffs in the last fiscal year and more face reductions to halftime and furloughs this year. So far, public safety employees have not been hit with cuts. Plainfield Municipal Employees Association President Cynthia Smith said she heard police officers told at a recent ceremony that despite tough times, they would be “taken care of first.”

Smith, a city employee for 29 years, said her union’s members appreciate having city employment to provide for their families. They serve under a residency requirement which is waived for police and fire personnel.

“We live here, so seeing what goes on here matters to us,” Smith said.

Once considered sacrosanct, public safety unions are facing the prospect of cuts in several municipalities.

Among topics raised in the budget presentations Wednesday, Nierstedt mentioned that the city may seek to get back one of two defunct train stations as part of a transit-oriented development strategy. Currently, the main train station on North Avenue and the Netherwood station are operating. Of the long-gone Grant Avenue and Clinton Avenue stations, the city is looking to re-establish the latter.

Nierstedt also said the city needs a downtown parking deck. A six-story parking deck was proposed many years ago to replace Municipal Parking Lot 6 on East Second Street, but recently developer Frank Cretella said there was adequate parking in numerous city lots downtown. Cretella has seven projects in the works, but few have onsite parking. For one - apartments in the old Mirons warehouse on East Second Street - residents would have to park more than a block away behind the Payless store on East Front Street.

The Planning Division is projected to have one clerical employee reduced to part-time, which means the office may have to close to the public except for posted hours.

Nierstedt said the division is becoming stricter about charging fees to Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment applicants and will also seek to reduce paper costs by relying more on electronic formats.

On economic development, Councilman Adrian Mapp asked Howard to come up with an aggressive marketing plan for Plainfield.

“I want us to tell the world what we have in the city,” Mapp said.

Howard countered by citing factors such as crime that would have to be addressed first.

But in answer to Councilman Rashid Burney’s question on how to attract businesses, Howard said there is “a golden opportunity to become a green city.” Howard named bio farms and bio diesel as two possible industries to develop. The bio diesel fuel would come from grease, he said, and a processing plant could be located in the West End.

In closing, McWilliams suggested a wrap-up of development for this calendar year, possibly at a special meeting.

The council will hold its November agenda-fixing session at 7:30 p.m. Monday in City Hall Library. The hearing on the budget as introduced will be the same night. Budget documents are available in the City Clerk's office in City Hall, 515 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Library Facing More Cuts

If the City Council does nothing to modify Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs' proposed budget for the Plainfield Public Library, the library will be forced to lay off four fulltime employees and two part-time employees, reduce one custodian to part-time and demote two fulltime employees.

That was one of four scenarios projected Tuesday as Library Director Joe Da Rold and library board President Anne Robinson described the library's many services and the impact of budget cuts. Robinson said Plainfield residents pay only $35.54 per capita for the library, down from $42.75, which she said is lower than every surrounding community. But they can get computer training, gain literacy and look for jobs there, in addition to using the library for traditional uses such as research and reading.

In the last budget year, the library received a surprise bill for $158,000 to cover benefits that had already been included in a union contract. A similar bill is in the mayor's proposed budget. Robinson described the many adjustments the library was forced to make while still keeping up services.

Council members were mostly sympathetic to the library's plight and appreciative of what it does for the community. City Council President Annie McWilliams noted that the New Jersey Library Association named Da Rold Librarian of the Year, which brought a round of applause from the council and residents attending the meeting. Councilman Rashid Burney praised the library as not just a service, but a core service.

But Councilman William Reid said the city is under a tax cap and increasing the library's budget would "move the tax on taxpayers up."

Though acknowledging the current tough times, Da Rold said, "When residents are hurting, they are using the library the most."

(Disclaimer: My son works part-time at the library.)

--Bernice Paglia

IT/Media Needs More Money, Staff

Lack of staff is stalling improvements in computer functions, the city’s IT manager told the City Council in Tuesday’s budget session.

Since his hiring in February, IT Manager Chris Payne has had to cover all the bases largely by himself. Payne is seeking a boost in salaries and wages from $131,506 to $162,744 and in expenses from $35,000 to $154,950, with a $100,000 tab for outside consultants. He is also in charge of Media, for which he is seeking a budget increase from $70,000 to $113,100.

Payne painted a bleak picture of needs in city offices, including staff training, linkages among divisions and computer replacement. The city’s website, he said, needs to be completely redesigned and a shared services plan with the Board of Education must be worked out.

In preceding budget talks, numerous division heads have told the council how much better their offices would function without having to rely on cumbersome manual records on paper. On Tuesday, council members were supportive of Payne’s goals.

“This is one of the most important things we can do for our residents,” Councilman Rashid Burney said, envisioning citizens taking care of their business with the city online, from home.

“They would not have to come to City Hall,” he said.

Burney called Payne and two recently hired temporary workers “a skeleton staff.”

But council members also questioned the fact that Payne’s title has never been integrated into a department structure mandated by the city’s special charter. At present, Payne reports directly to Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, in contradiction to working under one of the three department heads.

To correct the situation, City Council President Annie McWilliams said an ordinance to place IT/Media under a department head may be offered at this month’s council meetings. The agenda-fixing session will be held at 7:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall Library and the regular meeting will be 8 p.m. Nov. 22 in Municipal Court. Both meetings were moved up a week from their original dates in order to make room for the budget talks.

The last budget session is tonight from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Senior Center, 400 E. Front St. Topics will be the capital improvement plan, the Planning Division and economic development.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, November 8, 2010

Students Record Budget Sessions

Aspiring videographers from the Plainfield Academy for the Arts and Advanced Studies manned the camera Monday and last Thursday to record City Council budget talks.

On Thursday, Isaiah Mackson and Moneta Kai-Price, both 14, videotaped the session at the Senior Center and on Monday, Ivory Fennell, 13, set up in City Hall Library to record the council deliberations.

Lamar Mackson, chairman of the Plainfield Cable Television Advisory Board, said the young people were doing the work as part of a studio class led by teacher Chris Paskewich. The tapes will be broadcast on local television channels 96 and 34.

The students not only honed their skills, they saved the city $100 per hour in videography costs.


Budget Cuts a Puzzle Without Union Help

Cost-cutting measures such as layoffs, converting to electronic records and pooling resources could improve the city’s bottom line, but the real key is union concessions, City Administrator Bibi Taylor said in budget talks Monday.

Of a half-dozen bargaining units, only two are currently willing to come to the table, but the city needs a coordinated effort of all unions, even those representing public safety, she said. Likening tax reduction to squeezing a balloon, she said if positions are restored, cuts must be made someplace else.

"That someplace doesn't exist any more in municipal government," she said.

The City Council began budget hearings on the introduced SFY 2011 budget in late October. Monday’s review covered the offices of tax assessor, tax collector, purchasing agent and audit and control. Of a $70 million budget, $50 million is projected to come from city taxpayers. The introduced budget includes several reductions from fulltime to part-time employment and a furlough plan for the Department of Public Works & urban Development.

Purchasing Agent David Spaulding said his division is strained by two layoffs earlier this year for the 2010 budget year. An automated system for requisitions and purchase orders – numbering 5,066 in the 2010 budget year - would help his office’s operations, he said.

Tax Collector Marie Glavan said her office would suffer from having the assistant tax collector reduced to half-time. The office is behind on filing documents in its manual system, she said. Glavan suggested a lock box plan that would allow a local bank to collect current taxes and forward them to her office in summary form, thus avoiding a pileup of mail. Councilman William Reid said he pays his taxes online through his bank, but Glavan said that was not the same as a lock box.

Tax Assessor Tracy Bennett said her long term goal is to have everything computerized, but in the short term, her office needs to start addressing a county-mandated change to put detailed property information into a “computer assisted mass appraisal” system. The city has not had a recent revaluation and will have to enter the information manually at a projected rate of 3,000 properties per year for 10,288 taxable properties and 501 exempt properties. Bennett deplored the proposed reduction to half-time of her assistant assessor, but officials said it may be restored through a budget amendment.

Taylor presented the Audit & Control report to the council and also cited automation of manual functions as a goal. Councilman Cory Storch noted the city still needs a chief finance officer and said without one, the division will have a hard time meeting its goals. Alluding to a state mandate to hire one by the end of November or face fines, Storch joked that the council would be “taking up a collection of $25 a day” to get one. Councilman Adrian Mapp said he was concerned that the division was not staffed adequately, and Reid agreed, saying he wants answers on how long the new IT division will take to implement the “grandiose ideas to save paperwork” that were voiced Monday night.

Tomorrow’s budget session, from 7 to 9 p.m. in City Hall Library, includes the Plainfield Public Library, the city clerk’s office and the IT/media division.

--Bernice Paglia

Official Council Race Results

County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi has posted the official results of the Nov. 2 general election.

In the First Ward, incumbent Democrat Councilman William Reid received 1,803 votes to Republican Sean Alfred's 126, with one vote for a personal choice.

For the Second & Third Wards at-large seat, New Democrat Rebecca Williams received 4,590 votes, Republican James Pivnichny received 842 votes and six people made personal choices. In the two wards, there were 12,440 eligible voters and about 37 percent went to the polls. Pivnichny, also known as "Piv," drew more votes than there are registered Republicans in the two wards.

That's it on the hyperlocal level for this year, folks. Stay tuned as two council seats - the Second Ward and the First & Fourth Ward at-large - will be up next year, along with the entire Democratic City Committee - 68 seats - and the Democratic Party Chairman's Assembly seat.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Copy Editing - A Dying Art?

In my early days as a Courier News reporter, the copy desk was a mighty force. One "it's" instead of "its" from a reporter would curl the lip of a copy editor. "Thier" for "their" or "you're" for "your" drew scorn even as the editor graciously fixed the errors. Copy editors had vast amounts of general knowledge and also kept dictionaries and other references close at hand.

Woe betide the reporter who did not check spelling, grammar and style before sending copy to the desk.

Later on, there was one copy editor in particular who did not have broad cultural knowledge and insisted Kwanzaa was not a word. Her dictionary only showed kwanza, an Angolan coin, and I had a hard time convincing her Kwanzaa was celebrated in Plainfield (this was before Hallmark started selling Kwanzaa cards). But most copy editors were the final arbiters in correcting reporters' work.

Now that news organizations are as flat as a flounder and functions such as copy editing are done from remote central locations, the once hard, gem-like flame of the copy desk has sputtered. Headlines and cutlines under photos are becoming somewhat slapdash. Reporters do not write headlines or cutlines, but because they are the living embodiment of the news organization in the towns they cover, they are liable to catch hell for errors such as "commerical," "wonded" and "vengance," all seen recently in local online news.

With copy floating around like flotsam and jetsam in some computer somewhere, it is also not surprising that an article first published online locally on Oct. 27 has appeared again on Nov. 3 and again today.

Bloggers must necessarily be their own copy editors and I have cringed sometimes at finding typos in old posts of mine. Dan had a bit of a howler today when he left the "f" out of "shifts."

But maybe it doesn't really matter any more. Many headlines could read "WTF?" or "OMG!" and young people wouldn't mind. Even vowels are obsolete in texting. Maybe to make news fit on a Blackberry, such shortcuts may become acceptable.

The change in standards is not just something that surprises me. Click here to see what some others think. And what do you think?


Support Preservation Tax Credit

Reader PTK wants all to know about a proposed tax credit that could be of great benefit to Plainfield's owners of historic properties. Click here to learn more.

A hearing is set for tomorrow. I am forwarding this message received today:

"Please alert everyone with whom you may be connected in the preservation community: the Historic Property Reinvestment Act will be heard by the NJ Assembly Appropriations Committee Mon. Nov. 8, 2 pm, Committee Room 11, 4th Floor, State House Annex, Trenton. Assemblyman Gusciora has indicated that his office would like as many people in attendance as possible. Please consider coming to the hearing! Even if you cannot attend, please consider submitting written testimony as historic homeowners, local preservationists, consultants- anything! Written testimony should be addressed to Chairwoman Nellie Poe and member of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, and can delivered in person that day or sent to Assemblywoman Nellie Poe, 100 Hamilton Plaza, Suite 1405, Paterson, NJ 07505. "

(Please note that should be Nellie Pou, not Poe.)



What was all that racket, we were wondering over here on East Seventh Street. Really, really loud music began blasting out in the afternoon, so loud it just about drowned out my radio inside my apartment. My neighbor could hear it in her bedroom at the rear of the building.

We were guessing it was a party at a house a block away, one known for raucous gatherings. Then I heard an MC and figured it was some kind of event, maybe at City Hall.

Finally I took a walk and found out it was an event, all right - four blocks away on North Avenue. It was very well-attended and most people were from out of town, so they didn't need to find out about it from music blasting through the center of the city. There were big vertical banners on Park and Watchung avenues to advertise the car show to the locals.

The council recently discussed creation or strengthening of a city noise ordinance, mainly to quell noise from parties and gatherings in neighborhoods. Nobody begrudges a person the occasional blow-out for a special occasion, but apparently some folks hold big blasts every weekend. Based on a couple of recent experiences here at Park & Seventh, we would like to see limits placed on events whose organizers come equipped with sound systems that would be better used for concerts in an arena.

Here's a look at the show (without sound):

Saturday, November 6, 2010

More on Social Services

Random image: Cosmos in autumn light.

A late-night phone call derailed my train of thought on a blog post and things are not much clearer this morning. I had hoped to write about some aspects of the social service agencies that were discussed in Thursday's budget talks. By chance, on Wednesday someone at the League of Women Voters meeting brought up the notion of updating the 1982 "This is Plainfield" booklet that explains governmental workings and gives an overview of the many community groups in the city. Several of the agencies discussed Thursday are covered in the booklet and the "then and now" comparison offers food for thought.

The biggest change is that social service agencies used to be under Public Affairs & Safety, along with Police, Fire, Inspections and Recreation. Now the Health Division and the social service agencies are under Administration & Finance. As many know, this arrangement came about under one particular mayor who had a friend in mind for the directorship of Administration & Finance. Trouble was, the guy's background was in social work. The council at the time went along with this change, permissible under the charter as long as all the divisions were under one of three mandated departments.

This unwieldy new department has, since 2006, had seven or eight shifts in who is in charge. Some divisions have chugged along as they have for 30 years, doing their own thing as they know best how to do it. But the governing body has recently sought more scrutiny on the question of whether social services could be delivered some other way, maybe through the county or by private, non-profit agencies. With high turnover at the top, who is to study the options and make recommendations?

City Administrator Bibi Taylor, who until recently was also handling AFH&SS department head duties, spoke Thursday of the need for a "paradigm shift from operating independent silos to going global" to address social service needs. Jargon aside, she is correct. Perhaps, if the council continues its committee system in 2011, one of them could focus on how to achieve such a shift.

The longtime director of the Bilingual Day Care center is retiring and could be an asset in reshaping the operation. The agency predates the move toward free preschool education and in fact the center includes both Abbott (DOE supported) and non-Abbott components. Maybe 30 years ago, Latino families needed a specialized program, but with Latino children now making up more than half the incoming student population, surely the district at large is taking up the needs of their families in the preschool program.

Surprisingly, most of the social service agencies reported the need to convert from paper to electronic record-keeping. Some have equipment and need staff training, others need both. This need is one that has come up year after year in budget talks. The governing body must find out what the IT plan is for these agencies while they are still part of city operations.

Budget talks will continue next week. The current council seems more inclined to seek analysis of the presentations than past ones. Even if the 2010 budget year concludes without major innovations, the ideas gleaned from these talks should shape the next round and maybe someday there will be the kind of change needed for the 21st century.


Friday, November 5, 2010

Diwali Greetings

Millions of people worldwide - Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains - are marking the holiday known as Diwali, sometimes known as the Festival of Lights. We have residents and business owners in our community who will be celebrating Diwali, so let us wish all a Happy Diwali.

To learn more about the holiday, click here.


Council to Agencies: Share Services, Publicize

More shared services and better public information are two needs the City Council identified in budget talks Thursday with representatives of the Health Division and social service agencies.

City Council President Annie McWilliams asked Health Officer Mark Colicchio to develop a citywide calendar for his division’s many public health events. The division offers flu shots, health screenings and advice on meeting prescription costs, among other things, but currently only uses the city’s web site or flyers to advertise its services. Councilman Adrian Mapp suggested an electronic bulletin board at City Hall or a “ticker tape” ad on the local television channels to reach more people.

Mapp also asked Colicchio about sharing of health officers in Union County. Colicchio said Westfield has a regional health department. Plainfield will look into shared health services “once we get everything in order,” he said, noting he has only been on the job since mid-2009.

Al Restaino, acting director of Administration, Finance, Health & Senior Services, received similar queries when he presented information on Plainfield Acting Services, the city’s anti-poverty agency. Restaino said the agency wants to create its own food bank, but council members asked what food distribution was already in place citywide and also suggested the agency might be better located at the county office building downtown.

Also asked about relocating to the county office building, Prema Achari said the idea was explored under former Finance Director Douglas Peck but was rejected by the building’s management. Achari conducts the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program in City Hall Annex. Mapp said when he was a Union County freeholder, he pushed the program as a means of combating childhood obesity, but questioned where it should be provided and how much other municipalities should contribute, as the program is open to qualified residents outside the city. The only other Union County site is in Trinitas Hospital in Elizabeth.

Also up for discussion Thursday were the Senior Citizens Service Program and the Bilingual Day Care Center.

All presenters got quizzed about performance measurements, goals and objectives, impact of possible layoffs and other answers the council is seeking this year in writing from each one. Council members were a bit displeased to receive all the information just that night and McWilliams said they may ask for answers to the 10 questions at least 48 hours before upcoming presentations.

Next week, the council will hear from the tax assessor, tax collector, audit & control and purchasing from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday at City Hall Library. On Tuesday, the Plainfield Public Library, the City Clerk’s office and IT/Media will be reviewed at the same time and location. The last session scheduled so far is 7 to 9 p.m. Nov. 10 at the senior center, when the capital budget, planning and economic development will be reviewed.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Garden Club Plants 350 Daffodils

Members of the Plainfield Garden Club gathered early Wednesday at the Shakespeare Garden in Cedar Brook Park to plant 350 daffodils of a variety named to honor the Garden Club of America's Centennial.

Job number one was digging out stray trumpet vines. The vines used to cover the garden's pergola, but were not authentic for a Shakespeare Garden. The new pergola is planted with honeysuckle and hop vines, both mentioned in the Bard's works.

There were plenty of weeds to be removed before the planting.

The rock-rimmed hillock is raked, weeded and ready for the daffodil bulbs to be uncrated.

Ornamental grasses have already been planted to fill in the space and disguise the spent daffodils after blooming. The fading leaves may last until June before they wither completely.

Holes for clusters of bulbs are dug nine inches deep.

Five or six bulbs are placed in each hole, not too close together as they will make offsets in future years.

All bulbs were planted before being covered with soil and left with good wishes for a beautiful spring crop.

Imagine 350 of these Garden Club of America daffodils all in bloom! Stop by in spring and see the display.
Thanks to the Plainfield Garden Club and the Union County Parks for partnering to give us the beautiful and serene place known as the Shakespeare Garden!